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London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and reluctant government informer.
In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated, and his thumbs have been tied behind his back. Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.
The Ashes of London is an absorbing, intricately plotted historical mystery set in Restoration London in the aftermath of the Great Fire; indeed the book opens with one of the main characters – lowly clerk, James Marwood – standing amid the crowds one night in early September 1666 watching in horror as St. Paul’s Cathedral is burned almost to the ground. He saves the life of a boy by dragging him away from the flames, only to discover that “he” is a “she” when she struggles, bites his hand and then makes off with his cloak. It’s a seemingly innocuous encounter, but one that will very soon start to assume importance for Marwood as it becomes clear that the young woman may somehow be linked to a series of murders.
The story takes place over the few months following the fire, and is told through two different viewpoints. We meet James Marwood first of all, a young man eking out a living as a clerk in the employ of Master Williamson, the editor and publisher of The London Gazette – a man of influence whose position gives him access to governmental circles. Marwood is caring for his ailing father, a staunch supporter of Cromwell and the Commonwealth who refused the new king’s offer of clemency after the Restoration and was imprisoned as a result. After several attempts, Marwood managed to have his father released – on condition that he lives quietly away from London. Marwood senior is becoming ever more confused and subject to the wandering of his wits (we would probably today recognise this as dementia), making it sometimes very difficult for his son to make sure he adheres to the terms of his release.
The other narrator in the story is a young woman, Catherine Lovett, the niece of Henry Alderley, one of the wealthiest men in London. Her name is tainted in the same way as Marwood’s; her father is a Regicide – one of the men who had been directly instrumental in the execution of King Charles I – and a wanted fugitive. Catherine – Cat – is just seventeen and dreams of becoming a draughtsman or architect and is desperate to avoid the marriage her uncle has arranged for her with a man much older than herself. It seems, however that there is no way out – until one night, her cousin Edward forces himself upon her, and, after attacking him with a knife, Cat flees the house with the help of her father’s most trusted old servant, Jem.
Not long after these events, Marwood is summoned by Williamson and taken to view a body that was discovered among the remains of St. Paul’s – but the death was not caused by the fire. The corpse’s arms are bound at the back by the thumbs and the head pierced by a thin blade at the back of the neck – clearly this is murder, and when he realises that the dead man had worn the livery of a servant in the Alderley household, things begin to fall into place. Henry Alderley is an alderman of the city as well as a goldsmith; reputed to be enormously wealthy, even the King himself is rumoured to be one of his principal debtors, and the murder of a member of Alderley’s household could lead to embarrassment for the crown. When another body is found some days later, murdered in the same way and also in some way connected to the Alderleys, Marwood finds himself drawn further and further into a mystery that reaches far beyond the dead bodies themselves and stretches back to the reign of the previous king and his successor, Oliver Cromwell.
The Restoration is a fascinating period of English history, and Andrew Taylor brings it brilliantly to life, his descriptions of the burned out shell of the once-proud St. Paul’s and the city around it so vivid as to make it seem as though London itself is another character in the book. His research into the period has obviously been extensive, but at no time was I subjected to info-dumps or large sections of exposition that felt like a history lesson; everything is smoothly woven through the story and the scholarship is never put on show. I particularly enjoy historical fiction in which politics and intrigue play a large part, so I was captivated by the author’s explorations of the precarious political situation and of the still present religious divide which had, two decades earlier, set Englishman against Englishman in a bloody civil war.
Woven in, out and around the murder mystery are a couple of other plotlines; one relating to the King’s determination to find the remaining Regicides and the other to what becomes of Cat after she leaves her uncle’s house. Mr. Taylor weaves these various stories together with great skill, bringing them inexorably closer together with Marwood narrating his side of the tale in the first person while the parts he doesn’t know about are filled in by Cat, whose narrative is in the third person. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but I found that it worked extremely well and was surprised how much I liked it.
The two central characters are intriguing, with Marwood probably being the more likeable of the two. He’s a fairly young man and wants nothing more than to be able to live down the notoriety of his name, make his way in the world and better himself – but it seems he’s unable to free himself of the shadows of the past as he finds himself dragged back into the murky world of old scandal and political chicanery. His father can be somewhat of a trial to him, yet his love for the older man shines through in his patience and tender care of him, leading to some of the most touching moments in the book.
Cat, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to warm to, even though her actions are understandable given what happens to her at the beginning. She’s unusual in her interest in draughtsmanship and architecture, which were, of course, not professions open to women, or even thought to be interests fitting for the fairer sex; but I really enjoyed that aspect of her character, and seeing her find an outlet for her particular talents.
The one real criticism I have of the book is that while these two characters are fairly-well drawn, I didn’t really feel as though I got to know either of them particularly well and I was left wanting to know a bit more about them. But this is billed as the first of a new series of books, so perhaps that was intentional and if, as I hope, we will see more of them in future novels, we will also get to know them better as the series progresses.
In spite of that, however, I was completely engrossed in the book from beginning to end, so I’m wholeheartedly recommending The Ashes of London to anyone who likes a gritty, strongly written, tightly-plotted historical mystery in which the historical aspect is of key importance to the story.